McAuliffe aide's terrible, inept quid pro quo

A new flap in Virginia strips the D.C. insider-turned-governor of his one saving grace

Published October 3, 2014 5:00PM (EDT)

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe        (Reuters/Chris Wattie)
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (Reuters/Chris Wattie)

If it wasn't obvious enough already, the news coming out of Old Dominion should make it official: Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic governor of Virginia, is terrible and inept.

Before getting into why officially holding acceptable-to-good positions isn't enough to redeem "the Macker," though, let's review Virginia politics' latest embarrassment, the alleged attempt by a top McAuliffe aide to pressure a state senator into postponing retirement and supporting the governor's planned Medicaid expansion. According to the Washington Post, McAuliffe Chief of Staff Paul Reagan left a voicemail for now-former Democratic state Sen. Phillip Puckett in early June offering a quid pro quo: a cushy job for Puckett's daughter if he waited to step down until the expansion cleared the state Senate.

"I know there was a lot of frustration with your daughter, not, you know, getting a judgeship or something," Reagan allegedly said in his message, according to a transcript shown to the Post. "If there’s something that we can do for her, I mean, you know, we have a couple of big agencies here that we still need agency heads," he continued. "We could potentially, potentially, subject to approval of the governor and so forth, you know, the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy could be available."

"We would be very eager to accommodate her, if, if that would be helpful in keeping you in the Senate," Reagan went on. "We, we would basically do anything. We just need you really, we need you for the rest of your term and beyond, but in the immediate future, we need you to help us get this Medicaid deal through and I think we’ve got a way to do it." Asked by the Post for comment, Reagan didn't deny the message was his, and the McAuliffe administration has only said that the act was done without the governor's knowledge or approval.

Ultimately, Puckett passed on Reagan's offer and decided to retire instead. Almost as soon as he did, questions arose about whether his retirement was the result of corruption — primarily because Puckett was offered*, via senate Republicans, a nice spot on the state's tobacco commission, and his daughter seemed poised to land her coveted judgeship, right after his resignation gave Republicans control of the state Senate. The FBI is looking into it. But McAuliffe, after running on a plan to provide health care to 400,000 more Virginians, has had to settle for a measly 25,000 instead.

At this point, you may be thinking that I agree with the "McAuliffe is the worst" argument because he's now not only creepy and sleazy but potentially corrupt. But the truth is quite the opposite. The reason this latest story should establish McAuliffe's terribleness isn't because his team engaged in the kind of grubby favor-trading we associate with ward bosses and political machines. On the contrary, the reason the new scandal is the last straw is because his team's attempt to govern this way totally sucked.

When liberals in Virginia last year were confronted with the awful prospect of having to choose between the cartoonishly mean-spirited Ken Cuccinelli and the brazenly shameless McAuliffe, Democrats who were worried about voters staying home would sometimes argue — or more often insinuate — that there were potentially certain benefits to their candidate being kinda-sorta corrupt. And while I'm not ready to take it into David Plotz's silly argument to support Chris Christie because he's corrupt, there's definitely some historical validity to the point. By today's standards, the patronage-happy Abraham Lincoln's hands were hopelessly dirty; and Lord knows Lyndon Johnson wasn't always on the up-and-up.

But the key thing about looking the other way when it comes to underhanded dealings is that it's only acceptable if it actually works. And seriously, who not only makes the kind of offer Reagan allegedly made on the phone rather than in person, but leaves it in a message? Is real life now less believable than "House of Cards"? Did these people learn nothing from Rod Blagojevich? Bob McDonnell aside, does anyone in Virginia politics know the difference between stupid and corrupt?

I could forgive McAuliffe for being a neoliberal bagman who represents what's broken in our politics if he were effective. But to be all those things and incompetent too? That's simply asking too much.

*A previous version of this article incorrectly claimed Puckett and his daughter got their allegedly desired new positions.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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Bob Mcdonnell Medicaid Obamacare Paul Reagan Phillip Puckett Terry Mcauliffe Virginia